I’ve watched Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie short several times over the years. I think it’s been an extra on nearly every Nightmare Before Christmas DVD release, so after I watch the adventures of Jack Skellington Frankenweenie often follows. When I heard that Tim Burton was taking his old half-hour film and expanding it to a full-length stop-motion animation feature, I was intrigued…but I was also concerned. At half an hour, the story was just about the perfect length – what was Burton planning to add in order to stretch the plot to three times the original size?
The plot, briefly: A young kid named Victor Frankenstein is growing up in suburban New Holland. He loves science and film-making, but his parents are concerned that he seems to have no friends save his dog, Sparky. When Sparky is hit by a car, Victor is traumatized…but his science teacher demonstrates the power of electricity to animate a dead frog, the boy decides to bring his pet back to life. His experiment succeeds, but Victor’s jealous classmates attempt to copy his success in order to win the science fair and reunite with beloved pets.
Frankenweenie is a typical Tim Burton movie, so whether you like it is probably directly related to how you felt about his previous films. Although I still like several of his older movies (The Nightmare Before Christmas is definitely in my Top 10; Sleepy Hollow is a guilty pleasure) my interest in his work has dwindled considerably since it feels like he’s been producing the same ol’ thing for the past ten years.
It’s worth nothing that neither Johnny Depp nor Helena Bonham Carter lent their voices to Frankenweenie…but Victor and his father both rather resemble a younger Depp. Danny Elfman returns to compose the music. The character design is consistent with The Nightmare Before Christmas and The Corpse Bride – if you stripped away the skin and muscles of Victor’s face, his skull would be not unlike Jack Skellington’s face.
But good grief, they had to fill that story with enough padding to fill a pillow factory to stretch it to feature length.
Victor is surrounded by people devoid of character depth, most of whom are based on a classic figure of the horror genre. His science teacher’s appearance is based on Vicent Price, and voiced by Martin Landau – you know, Bela Legosi in Burton’s earlier black and white film, Ed Wood. Nassor, one of his classmates, resembles Boris Karloff in Frankenstein’s monster mode. Another classmate, the obnoxious and annoying Edgar “E” Gore, is a misshapen hunchback like his namesake. Victor’s crush Elsa van Helsing is a cross between Wednesday Addams and Helena Bonham Carter on a particularly gothic day. “Weird Girl” – poor kid didn’t even get a proper name! – is a creepy ‘Children of the Corn’ type. It goes on and on…
As you can tell from the character list, references to older movies are legion. The shots of Victor bringing Sparky back to life seem lifted from the original Frankenstein film, and it seems like the entire reason the story was set in a town called “New Holland” was so that Burton could drag a flaming windmill in at the climax. That was just stupid, not clever. I’d go mad trying to list everything.
But when does this movie supposedly take place? I would have guessed somewhere between the 1950s and 1970s, based on the clothes characters war and the cars they drive – and the fact that there is no Internet. But at one point a character complains about the fact that Pluto is no longer a planet – a relatively recent development dating to about 2006. So is this story meant to be happening now?
Anyway. So there are multiple side plots – Victor’s dad wants him to play baseball, Weird Girl can predict the future via her cat’s turds, a chinky Japanese kid inadvertently turns his pet turtle Shelley (Turtle joke! Frankenstein joke! You see what Tim Burton did there?...yeah, I rolled my eyes too) into a Gamera-like creature in order to win the science fair – but they don’t add anything to the main heart-tugging plot: the trauma a little boy feels when he loses his dog and confronts death for the first time. Rather, they detract and distract from it. I was bored throughout Frankenweenie. I don’t ever want to watch it again…and I loved the short.
Way to ruin it, Mr. Burton.